When a Washington woman's three children came home from school last November with the year's first report cards, only two presented them to their mother.

"I remember I kept telling the girls how proud I was of their grades, my oldest boy was very quiet, he left the room without showing me his card . . .it didn't take a genius to know there was a problem."

Later that evening when his sisters were in bed, the boy finally delivered his report card.

"He had every reason to be upset," recalls his mother. "He was failing in math and language and was classified as working below grade level. We were shocked. We had no idea he was having so much trouble.

"He had always been a good student and we were angry with the teacher . . . she should have notified us sooner."

This uncomfortable scenario is not unusual for families with elementary-school-age children. Children do get bad grades and parents' reactions may be a mixture of concern and anger.

How can a parent judge if the problem lies primarily with their child's performance, or is involved with the teacher's ability to teach? How does the parent know if the teacher and the school are qualified to remedy the situation?

And, most important, can the parent voice concern and make some demands without becoming a threat to the teacher, thus jeopardizing the child's chances for progress?

Answers to these questions, unfortunately, do not come easily, nor are they the pat answers of textbooks.

As an Arlington parent says, "It's hard for me to evaluate what they're doing in a classroom. What are the questions you ask to find out what the child is learning? I've never found out."

And although parents may be able to laugh about it, they agree that there's something devastating about squeezing behind their child's desk and peering up at a teacher. "Suddenly," as one put it, "you're 8 years old again, and the failing math grade is yours , not your child's."

This parent paranoia is apparent in the fact that all parents interviewed did not want their child's real name used: They all felt a need to protect their child from negative judgment.

When a child is doing poorly in school it may take a considerable amount of time and effort and sometimes expense on the part of the parent (as well as the child and teacher). Even then, the results may not be satisfying.

It took a full year of effort for one girl and her parents in the Arlington public school system.

"Two years ago when Claire was in the third grade and in a class of 30 children she had a lot of trouble," says her mother.

"She had a 'self-directed' teacher who gave long-term assignments and Claire couldn't seem to function that way." She was tested as "average," but was in a class of children "well above average," with no other classes available. By December the teacher told her mother she was "going to have to fail her.

"We did everything we could. We hired a tutor for the winter and into the spring, but it was very frustrating. . . there was no place for her in the school, and we received no help from the principal and the teacher."

At the end of the year the teacher was impressed with the parents' involvement and by "how sweet Claire was," but she still talked about failing her. There were no alternatives offered.

Finally, Claire's parents pulled her out of the system and put her in a small private school where she repeated the grade and is "doing very well."

"I've always wondered," says her mother, "if I should have expected a program for her from the teacher. I've never found the answer to that. She never gave me any answers."

Declares Ursella Cossel, a sixth-grade teacher at Janney School in Northwest Washington: "The thing that makes the biggest difference in a child's achievement is the teacher.

"Parents are our first teachers, and after that parents and teachers need to work together to support the child."

Cossel, the kind of teacher students and parents never forget, has for the past 14 years brought enthusiasm and openness to a startled classroom.

When one of her students is doing poorly with a subject or a concept, she lets the parents know well before that grade comes home and then keeps up a "daily communication with the parent." The child's paperwork has to be corrected at home by the child, signed by the parent, and then returned to her. The lesson is repeated until the child has grasped the concept.

"The kids hate my system," beams Cossel, "but the parents love it."

Says a parent in the D.C. school system, who works as a private-school counselor:

"I request a teacher conference in the fall and in the spring, whether there is anything going on or not. Some teachers are receptive to that and some are not, but I feel it's important. Good teachers nip problems in the bud and can basically handle it before parents come in.

"But in a more serious situation, there should be a more objective source to come in . . . the principal, a counselor or psychologist, a person of direct leadership. This is particularly true on issues that are not purely academic."

And for problems that are?

"The first thing a parent wants to do is talk to the child and ask why that grade is on the report card," says Lois Karasik of the National Education Association's Instruction and Professional Development Division.

"The child may have a very acute sense as to why that grade is bad. If the child's explanation is not in the normal range, such as 'I haven't been doing my homework, I promise to try harder,' and you still think you need more information, go to the teacher and see if her explanation matches the child's.

"If their preceptions are dissimilar you need to look for possible solutions together and put them into effect . . . such as peer tutoring. There are a lot of remedies offered by the school.

"Remember, children in very uneven ways. Unless there's something unusual, the teacher is unlikely to call you unless you ask. Request the teacher to call and let you know how the problem is going into the second marking period. Keep up with it, and ask your child throughout the marking period. You may also have to determine if a diagnosis has to be made for a visual, language or hearing problem."

A Bethesda mother of a precocious 6-year-old (who knows his dinosaurs and muses about the meaning of life and death) says she did all those things and still wound up frustrated and angry with the public school system.

"What it amounted to was my son's teacher didn't like him. She would complain to me that 'He asks too many questions.' She just couldn't deal with him as a person. She would put him in 'The Thinking Box,' a little area where he was sequestered and she didn't have to deal with him.

"This all started when the teacher alerted us to his 'messy handwriting' in the first semester of his kindergarten year. He was unable to do work to her standards, and she was unable to help him.

"When I recommended that Peter use the school's resource person I was told that it was too soon to do the screening. After my insistence, he was screened and the resource person decided on tutoring him 25 percent of the time he was in school. We agreed to this even though it meant he was labeled as 'learning disabled' -- Peter was the only child taken out of the classroom each day. But the resource person liked him and that made the difference.

"We knew we wanted to change schools for the next year, so Peter was tested by private schools and scored off the top intellectually. He's been tested as 'intellectually gifted.'"

Peter is now a first-grader in a Montgomery County private school, where he is "happy, completing his work and likes his teacher."

"But," adds his mother, "he will always be tagged as 'learning disabled' in the Montgomery County public school system. We can't get rid of that."

These stories are unfortunate and probably not the norm, but parents can learn from them.

Under the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) parents have the right to inspect their child's school records at any time. They also have a right to demand an explanation for any statement in their child's record that they feel is "inacurate, misleading or otherwise in violation of the privacy or other rights of students."

There is no law, though, to protect or guide parents in how they should approach a teacher or a principal.

Concerned parents have to rely most, perhaps, on their common sense, and if they can muster it, objectivity.

As one parent put it, "We may be very much colored by our child's point of view, but sometimes it behooves us to speak up, because our child can't."